Posted February 22, 2011
A Catholic contribution in Egypt
By John L Allen Jr
For better or worse, Egypt is now a bellwether of the struggle for the soul of
global Islam. While a great deal is up in the air, one point seems crystal
clear: If the post-Mubarak choice comes down to Islamic militants on one side
and Western-style secular liberals on the other -- what we might call the
"Facebook crowd" -- then the militants are going to win, and they're going to
As in other Islamic societies, the vast majority of Egyptians are not radicals,
but they are practicing, believing Muslims, who would not feel represented by a
regime which doesn't take their faith seriously and doesn't recognize Islam as a
core pillar of social organization.
What Egypt therefore needs is something akin to an Islamic version of the old
Christian Democrats in Europe -- a political movement led by serious Muslims,
perceived as such by the Muslim street, who are also committed to democracy and
the rule of law.
It's possible that the Muslim Brotherhood could evolve in that direction. That
was the thrust of their Feb. 10 opinion piece in The New York Times, calling for
"a democratic, civil state that draws on universal measures of freedom and
justice ... which are inherently compatible with and reinforce Islamic tenets."
If not, some new force will have to arise, led by Egyptian versions of Konrad
Adenauer  and Robert Schuman .
Building a coalition of "Muslim Democrats" is, of course, something the
Egyptians have to do themselves. External interference, especially from the
West, will likely be counter-productive. Egypt is gripped by a spirit of
national pride at the moment, with people painting their faces the color of the
national flag and celebratory concerts being staged across the country.
Egyptians feel they've done just fine handling things on their own, and they
aren't in the mood to be hectored by outside forces -- especially, perhaps, by
countries they perceive as having propped up the Mubarak regime.
Nonetheless, there are three compelling reasons to believe that Christianity,
and the Catholic church in particular, could play an important supporting role
in the Egyptian drama.
I was in Vancouver earlier this week, keynoting a conference of Catholic
educators. I also spoke at a luncheon hosted by Archbishop Michael Miller for
some priests and other personnel of the archdiocese, which gave me the
opportunity to work out these ideas. I'm grateful for their interest and
Benedict's vision for Christian/Muslim relations
Pope John Paul II was a great pioneer in Catholic/Muslim relations, typically
grounding his outreach on the usual pillars of inter-faith relations: peace,
tolerance, and in the case of the Western monotheistic faiths, our common
heritage as sons of Abraham. Benedict XVI has embraced all that, with a slightly
sharper emphasis on matters of religious freedom and the need for Islamic
leaders to reject violence -- usually as part of his broader analysis of the
intrinsic relationship between reason and faith.
Benedict's genius, however, lies in adding another basis for Christian/Muslim
solidarity to the mix, one with special appeal to the hawks on both sides. It
boils down to this: We have a common enemy, whose name is secularism.
The basic fault line in the 21st century, Benedict has argued in a variety of
venues, does not run between Christianity and Islam. It runs between belief and
unbelief -- that is, between those who take religion seriously and who want it
to be a vital contributor to public life, and those who seek to muzzle and
marginalize religious faith. In that great struggle, the pope believes,
Christians and Muslims are natural allies.
That's what Benedict had in mind when he called for an "Alliance of
Civilizations" between Christianity and Islam during his May 2009 trip to the
Middle East, a phrase coined as an alternative to Samuel Huntington's "clash of
The concept of an "Alliance of Civilizations" actually comes from a United
Nations initiative by that name, which ironically was first floated by Socialist
Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, the radical secularist
bęte noir of the European Catholic imagination. Though they're not mutually
exclusive, Benedict's version of an alliance can engage Muslims at a level the
U.N. can't, because Benedict represents a set of common spiritual and moral
In his recent book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald,
Benedict was asked about the long history of Christian/Muslim antagonism.
Without disowning the past, this was his answer: "Today we are living in a
completely different world, in which the battle lines are drawn differently. In
this world, radical secularism stands on one side, and the question of God, in
its various forms, stands on the other."
The notion of an "Alliance of Civilizations" in defense of a robust public role
for religion, while still respecting human rights and especially religious
freedom, could provide a key component of the intellectual infrastructure for a
"Muslim Democrats" movement -- one which sees Christianity as a partner rather
than a threat.
Christianity's sociological footprint
In terms of raw numbers, Egypt has the largest Christian population in the
Middle East. The consensus estimate is that there are eight million Christians,
representing close to 10 percent of the population. The vast majority is Coptic
Orthodox, but there are also seven Catholic communities: Syrian, Maronite,
Melkite, Armenian, Chaldean, and Coptic, in addition to the Latin rite. The
Coptic Catholics are the largest group, estimated at 200,000.
Christianity thus has a sociological footprint in Egypt it lacks in most other
Muslim nations, making Christianity not just an outside force but an important
To be sure, those Christians face rising fundamentalist pressures, the most
dramatic recent expression of which came in a New Year's bombing of a Coptic
church in Alexandria which left 21 people dead and 80 injured. Given that
background, Christians naturally feel a mix of hope and fear about the country's
Yet Egypt's demographics mean that if a moderate majority is to take hold, it
must be a three-legged stool composed of Muslim Democrats, Christians, and
secularists. Take one of those legs away, and the stool falls.
At the moment, Egypt's Christian leadership may have some credibility to
recover. Until the very end, both Coptic and Catholic leaders were making
statements supportive of Mubarak and instructing their people not to participate
in the protests -- advice that went largely unheeded. Now they need to position
themselves as partners in the new Egypt, which was the thrust of a recent
statement from the Coptic Catholic Patriarch, Cardinal Antonios Naguib, pledging
that the church will work to build a nation "based on laws, justice and
equality, that respects one's freedom and dignity based on citizenship."
The Catholic footprint is also enhanced by the presence of a talented nuncio, or
papal ambassador: English Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the former president of
the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. A member of the
Missionaries of Africa, Fitzgerald is the real deal -- an academic expert on
Islam who holds a degree in Arabic from the University of London, with decades
of experience in the relationship.
When Benedict XVI sent Fitzgerald to Cairo in 2006, many Vatican-watchers took
it as a demotion or an exile. Today, however, the assignment looks prophetic, as
Fitzgerald stands on the front lines of the most compelling drama in the Muslim
Diplomatic relations between Egypt and the Vatican were recently interrupted
when the Mubarak government withdrew its ambassador in protest over comments by
Benedict XVI in January, calling for greater protection for the country's
Christian minority. Now there's a chance to rebuild the relationship, and
whether by foresight, providence, or just dumb luck, the Vatican has the perfect
architect in Fitzgerald.
The American parallel
Catholics, especially in the United States, have something particular to offer
to the Egyptian conversation. In a nutshell, American Catholics have stood
before roughly where reform-minded Egyptian Muslims stand today -- wondering how
to bring their religious faith and their democratic convictions into alignment.
American Catholic legal analyst Kevin Seamus Hasson, president of the Becket
Fund for Religious Liberty, lays out the argument this way: In the United
States, Catholicism was never a state-imposed monopoly. Catholics here had to
make their way in a pluralistic culture from the very beginning, and the great
discovery was that in a society marked by religious freedom and the absence of
state support, the faith not only survived but thrived.
For a long time, American Catholics were thus caught between their lived
experience and an official theology which rejected a separation between church
and state. At the Second Vatican Council, American Catholics led the way for the
universal church towards a new understanding of religious freedom, enshrined in
the declaration Dignitatis humanae.
Many American Muslims say their experience is eerily similar. Imam Shamsi Ali of
New York's Islamic Cultural Center told me in a 2007 interview that "aside from
a small minority, most Muslims have bought into the American approach. We don't
have to formalize Islam publicly. We live shariah here better than Muslims in
many other places where it's supposedly the law."
Today, Egyptians find themselves wrestling with much the same question: How can
their new society be both seriously religious and genuinely democratic? With
allowances for obvious cultural and historical differences, the American
Catholic journey, and more recently that of American Muslims, could provide
powerful resources for reflection.
* * *
I surveyed a few Catholic leaders in Egypt this week to ask what Catholics in
the United States could do to be of help, without appearing to interfere. The
following were the three most common points I picked up.
First, try to offer a balanced picture of the situation facing Christians. For
sure, there are real threats -- not just the occasional terrorist attack, but
also daily discrimination in employment, housing, public life, and so on. Yet
there are also positive trends that often don't command the same attention.
For instance, Western media outlets covered the New Year's church attack
extensively, but didn't devote nearly as much attention to its aftermath, in
which a large numbers of Muslims actually attended Christian services to express
solidarity. Local experts say that experience helped forge a climate of
cooperation which extended into the anti-Mubarak protests. In Tahrir Square,
Muslim protestors performed their daily prayers, but there were also prayer
services for Christians in which many Muslims participated, organized by the
young people themselves.
Too much focus on anti-Christian hostility, without acknowledging the generosity
and tolerance that also have a strong following in Egypt, risks breeding
resentment and thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Second, Catholics can visit Egypt to express their solidarity and concern for
the local Christian community. One Catholic leader in Cairo offered an
intriguing twist on that idea: It would be an even more positive signal, he
suggested, if Christians and Muslims together were to come, meeting with both
local Christians and local Muslims and seeing their holy sites. Among other
things, such a joint outing might offer a way for American Catholics and Muslims
to talk about the American experience with their Egyptian counterparts.
Third, Catholics could support local educational and humanitarian initiatives
associated with the church. Here's one possibility, out of many deserving
initiatives: The Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development, a
lay-run Catholic group that operates in rural communities, which tend to have
sizeable Christian populations and which also tend to be disproportionately
poor. Their services are also open to Muslims.
The association's Web site can be found here: www.upperegypt.org  For those
concerned about Egypt's future, it's one concrete way to make a difference.
* * *
Last week, I published an interview with Luis Lugo and Greg Smith of the Pew
Forum , trying to make sense of their 2008 "Religious Landscape Survey." The
study found that there are now 22 million ex-Catholics in America, by far the
highest net losses for any religious group, and yet the Catholic church also has
one of the highest retention rates for any Christian denomination in the
As I told Lugo and Smith, the background for the interview was my experience of
the Catholic lecture circuit. Almost everywhere I go, somebody asks about the
Pew study, and I've never known quite how to respond. The need to put the
findings in context has therefore been in the back of my mind for a long time.
By coincidence, what prompted me to do so last week was the recent Murray/Bacik
Lecture at the University of Toledo by noted theologian Richard Gaillardetz, in
which, among many other points, he referred to a "mass exodus" from the church
on the basis of the Pew data. My aim was not to engage Gaillardetz's broader
analysis -- the only reason I mentioned the lecture at all was to illustrate
that reactions to the study are still making the rounds.
In retrospect, however, I realize that I did Gaillardetz an injustice.
Lifting an isolated sound-bite out of his 7,500-word text hardly captured the
spirit of a thoughtful, and nuanced, analysis of the American Catholic
situation. What I should have added last week is what I'll say now: If you want
to know what Gaillardetz said, don't rely on second-hand characterizations by me
or anyone else. Listen for yourself, which you can do at this link:
Though Gaillardetz's prescriptions are admittedly likely to be most congenial to
what we might call the Catholic "center-left," his historical review of recent
currents in American Catholicism offers a terrific descriptive synthesis from
which everyone can benefit, no matter where they stand in today's debates.
Over the years, Gaillardetz has always tried to overcome the polarized climate
in the church, not to exacerbate it. Especially in that light, I'm sorry if I
created a false impression about his lecture.
[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. He can be reached